Two weeks ago I joined about 20 other A Focus On Nature members (AFON - the network for young conservationists) at the Knepp Estate in Sussex, for a wonderful weekend of wildlife. The Knepp Wildland is one of the largest re-wilding projects in Europe, where 3,500 acres of the Sussex countryside is preserved, allowing natural habitat regeneration, enabling it's wildlife to thrive. We camped at the Knepp Wildland Safaris farm, which acted as a great base for our wildlife excursions on the estate.
We started the weekend with an introductory talk by Charles Burrell, the owner of the estate, about the re-wilding project and the livestock farming - which is essential for the vegetation management and financial security of the project. We then, armed with sweep nets to hunt for insects, proceeded on a walking tour of just a small part of the project, led by Knepp's resident ecologist Penny Green. It was brilliant to be immersed in the habitat searching for insects with several insect experts, sharing their knowledge and identifying the contents of our sweep nets. I also saw my first 2 butterfly lifers of the weekend - Marbled White and Purple Hairstreak. The Purple Hairstreaks stayed high up in the tree tops so the views were very distant, but the Marbled Whites showed much closer, fluttering by over the fields, but unfortunately never landing for more than a second. Someone did manage to pot one though, allowing us to get a great close up look of this stunning insect.
After a barbecue in the evening, using meat from the deer, cows and pigs that graze on the estate, Penny led us on a walk to look for Barn Owls. We hunkered down in a field, looking over at a barn in which the owls nest, waiting silently and intently. As dusk set in we watched an adult bird bringing in food, hearing the chicks hissing as they were fed. A large Oak Eggar moth clumsily fluttered by us as we waited, and a Little Owl called repeatedly from the trees behind us. We then went to sit by a lake, where we watched 5 or so Daubenton’s Bats whirling back and forth over the water, feeding on the moths – truly magical! After inspecting the 2 moth traps by the lake to see what had already been attracted to the blinding lights, we headed back to the tents, ready to get up early for the bird ringing on Sunday morning.
I arrived at the ringing base, about a 5-minute walk from the campsite, at half past six, but an even earlier start for most of the group had meant they got great views of a purring Turtle Dove. After hearing what I’d missed, I took a walk up the path with a couple of others, to where the bird had been seen. After a few minutes a Turtle Dove flew over, landing out of view, but we did get to hear its characteristic purr – my first one in the UK for about 5 years! For a couple more hours we watched the ringing, allowing us to see great birds like Chiffchaffs, Bullfinches and Lesser Whitethroats in the hand. A Kingfisher was also spotted darting across the lake a few times, with its electric blue sheen shimmering in the sun.
On the way back to the campsite for a late breakfast after the ringing, everyone suddenly stopped on the path and started taking photos of an insect on a cowpat... it was a stunning male Purple Emperor! This beautiful creature allowed us very close, not at all bothered by the circle of people and cameras surrounding it. We later found out that male Purple Emperors need to take in certain minerals and salts in order to breed, such minerals they can get from a variety of sources, including dung, dead animals and tree sap. Once a source of these nutrients has been found, it becomes the males' sole priority, meaning they will very reluctantly give it up - providing remarkable views to anyone who is lucky enough to chance upon this fascinating behaviour. Knepp is the best place in the country to see this species - and now I can see why! Our encounter with this glorious animal was a first for me and many in the group, and one that will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Following that excitement, it was scheduled for us to do a Purple Emperor walk, but after our previous encounter we weren't sure that we could be more impressed by this butterfly! Led by a Purple Emperor expert, we learnt so much more about them. Although we didn't get any closer views, it was brilliant to see so many individuals of this scarce species. It was fascinating to observe different behaviours; the males patrolling the trees with their powerful wing beats, seeing off anything that flew nearby (they are very aggressive butterflies!), and the females searching the sallow woods for a perfect leaf on which to lay their eggs. We were also very privileged to be shown an egg and a chrysalis, from which a female had emerged a few days previous. On the walk we also got much better views of Purple Hairstreaks, allowing me to get a record photo of one as it rested on the oak leaves. There was another flurry of excitement on the walk when a White Admiral was spotted, a species not seen at Knepp very often at all, and another butterfly lifer for me!
When we returned back to the campsite after the walk we went through the moth traps, in which were hundreds of moths, caddis flies, beetles and other insects. We saw some great species like Buff-tip, Buff Arches, Bordered Beauty, Dun-bar, Ghost Moth and 3 Elephant Hawkmoths.
The weekend finished with a group photo, then everyone departed their separate ways, and I started the 7 hour journey back home - but it was definitely worth it! It was great to meet more like-minded young people, seeing loads of brilliant wildlife, and of course getting 4 butterfly lifers. We had very good weather all weekend, although at some points it was unbearably hot and humid, but at least it didn't rain. My close-focussing Opticron Verano HD 10x42 binoculars were perfect for this trip, enabling me to get brilliant views of all the butterflies and insects. I will no doubt be visiting the Knepp Estate again in the future, it is truly an amazing place!
I'm Sorrel, a young birder and wildlife artist based in the East Midlands - this is my blog all about my birding and wildlife adventures.